Category: Archive

Book Review Flann O’Brien, Ireland’s ‘unknown’ literary genius

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

NO LAUGHING MATTER: The Life & Times of Flann O’Brien,” by Anthony Cronin. Fromm International New York. $29.95

It would be difficult to come up with the name of a writer more highly regarded by the literati of his own country and at the same time less well known beyond its borders than Flann O’Brien, whom the Washington Post has called “Ireland’s finest novelist after Joyce.”

O’Brien’s story is complex no matter how it’s approached, since he had at least three operative names, and if you count Brian + Nuall_in, the Irish form of Brian O’Nolan, the name on his birth certificate, the total rises to four.

He adopted the name, Flann O’Brien, when he began publishing, because the regulations attendant to his regular civil service job prohibited using his own name.

When he began writing a newspaper column for the Irish Times in 1940, he adopted the name Myles na Gopaleen. The column itself, which he wrote for 25 years and which probably brought him his greatest fame in Ireland, was called “Cruiskeen Lawn,” meaning the Little Brimming Jug.

Follow us on social media

Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo

In 1989, O’Brien, who died in 1966 at the age of 55, became the subject of a full-length biography by Dublin poet and novelist Anthony Cronin, author of “Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist.”

Cronin’s book, “No Laughing Matter: The Life & Times of Flann O’Brien,” has now been republished by an American imprint, Fromm International.

Born in 1911 in Strabane, Co. Tyrone, one of three sons of a customs officer, O’Brien, then known as + Nuall_in, knew little or no English, except fragments he’d taught himself from books, until 1923, when his father was named commissioner, a promotion which required that the family relocate to Dublin.

O’Brien’s first formal education came at the sometimes harsh hands of the Christian Brothers in Dublin’s Synge Street, an experience he found extremely negative, and about which he wrote again and again, as late in his life as 1961, when he published “The Hard Life.”

After studying with the Holy Ghost Fathers at Blackrock College, O’Brien enrolled at University College Dublin where he became an active fixture of the Literary and Historical Debating Society, and where, while never a very good student in formal terms, his talent for comedic writing became apparent through his contributions to the student magazine.

It was in that publication, Comhthrom FTinne, that O’Brien first wrote using a literary persona, in that case “Brother Barnabas.” Another O’Brien persona was “Count O’Blather,” whom he developed for use in a short-lived humor magazine, Blather, which he founded with his brother Ciar_n while he was still in his early 20s.

In 1935, following a family tradition, O’Brien joined the Irish civil service in the Department of Local Government, eventually rising to the post of principal officer for town planning.

His first book, “At Swim-Two-Birds,” was published in 1939, received positive notices and attracted the attention of, among others, James Joyce, who called it “a really funny book,” and declared its author to be “a real writer, with a true comic spirit.”

The book, however, didn’t sell well, and when his next novel, “The Third Policeman,” was turned down by a succession of British publishers in 1940, O’Brien became discouraged and stopped trying to get it published. It was released posthumously in 1967.

His disappointment with the rejection of “The Third Policeman” may have been at least a partial cause of his withdrawal into the Irish language when he began his Irish Times column.

“Cruiskeen Lawn” stayed in Irish in 1940 and into 1941, but as its popularity increased, so did its use of English.

In 1941, O’Brien published a novel in Irish, “An BTal Bocht,” which, understandably enough, didn’t sell many copies until its author put it out in English in 1964, as “The Poor Mouth.”

Dissatisfaction with the Irish Free State combined with declining health to make Flann O’Brien an embittered man. His columns became darker and more pessimistic with the passing years, and, due somewhat to the pressure of his bureaucratic employment, they even began to appear less frequently.

By 1953, his attacks on Establishment figures had become so violent that the Civil Service forced him into early retirement, using his bouts of drunkenness as a justification. At this point, O’Brien increased production of his column, even producing a toothless version for use in provincial papers.

In 1960, a new edition of “At Swim-Two-Birds” became a great success, enabling the author and his wife to live in relative comfort for the rest of their days.

Flann O’Brien is far from the first humorist to have lived a fundamentally sad and frequently despairing life, and Anthony Cronin has admirably faced the facts of his subject’s life without flinching.

The best thing about “No Laughing Matter: The Life & Times of Flann O’Brien,” apart from the solidity of Cronin’s writing is that, on the off chance, it may just succeed in making the author it examines at least a little bit better known in the future than he has been in the years since he passed from the Irish literary scene.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese